The found footage formula – much like the recent trend of big budget, 3D filmmaking – appears to have just as many detractors as it does enthusiasts. The Paranormal Activity money train keeps trundling mercilessly on, and the occasional exorcist mockumentary will still manage to take the US box office off-guard, but the horror genre does seem to be falling out of love with the ‘shaky cam’ aesthetic. Thus, enter stage left Josh Trank’s Chronicle (2012), the first superhero movie to exploit the format, following a trio of high school teens (all played by relative unknowns) who suddenly become blessed with superhuman abilities.
Rather than focusing upon a group of genetically-enhanced mutants or Lycra-clad crimestoppers, here our protagonists are a group of young high school attendees: the shy and retiring Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his older cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and aspiring politician Steve (Michael B. Jordan). After a run-in with a strange, glowing object – one presumes from outer space – the boys are gifted with extreme physical resilience and, more excitingly, the power of telekinesis. However, as we’ve been drilled before, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, and Andrew’s turbulent domestic life threatens to turn him onto the dark side.
For the first half an hour, Chronicle provides an enjoyable spin on the tried-and-tested superhero formula, albeit with a few clunky philosophical references courtesy of the pseudo-intellectual Matt and some slightly wobbly special effects (the latter is probably forgivable giving the relatively small $15 million budget). However, as the trio begin to explore the full potential of their newfound gifts, the power/responsibility dichotomy rears its familiar head and the film descends into the same trope-filled battle of good vs. evil that we have seen time and time again.
Sadly, the found footage format is another major factor in Chronicle’s disappointing descent into mediocrity. Its usage is initially well explained – put-upon protagonist Andrew uses it as a defensive shield against his abusive, alcoholic father, stating from the off that he will be ‘recording everything’. This tightly framed approach works wonders in the opening exchanges, but as Andrew’s telekinetic powers increase in magnitude, he is soon able to float the recording camera around his person with relative ease. With the first person perspective seemingly abandoned, Trank is free to throw all manner of viewpoints and angles at his audience, from video-blogging love interests to hospital security cameras – which never quite work.
Ultimately, Chronicle gives us almost nothing that we haven’t seen done before (and often better, in the case of 2008’s Cloverfield) in previous sci-fi/found footage crossovers. For all its good will and early invention, it sadly peters out into a messy, cross-city fight scene and overly-sentimental finale that may well leave you hungry for the clinical precision and set-piece panache of a Nolan or an Abrams.